June 13, 2013

Gorge work, stewards increase safety of natural areas

Jamie Sternlicht, Sarah Kennedy and Lisa Malloy
Jason Koski/University Photography
Gorge stewards, form left, Jamie Sternlicht, Sarah Kennedy and Lisa Malloy at Sacketts Bridge over Beebe Lake.

With funding and approvals in place, work on the most arduous section of the Cascadilla Gorge trail system will steadily proceed through the summer, says Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Plantations.

Nearly one-half of this section of the trail, from under the Stewart Avenue Bridge to College Avenue, comprises staircases. The section is wetter and steeper than the lower section from Stewart Avenue to Lynn Street, which had been completed in fall 2010.

Then came Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in early fall 2011. The lower, repaired section of the trail sustained only nominal damage, but the upper portion was massively damaged, Bittner said. Cornell applied for and received a grant of $880,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to repair the trail, staircases and railings, and remove flood debris. The historic character of the trail will be re-established, and modern materials and practices will make the trail more resilient to future flood events.

For instance, poured concrete is more durable than laid stone, allowing for the use of rebar, stainless steel anchors and drainage structures. By tinting the concrete to look like shale and using textured pouring forms, the concrete facades blend in with the stone-laid ones, making them look as if they have aged in place, Bittner said.

The weakest stonework is at the intersections of vertical stonewalls with horizontal bedrock at or below the water’s surface, as these joints are prone to undercutting, Bittner said. A special, shale-tinted concrete, known as Shotcrete, will reinforce these joints and fill and stabilize other undercut walls or masonry work. Hand laid stone can then be set in place, concealing the modern materials behind the natural surface, he said.

The FEMA grant supplements the $2.5 million the university had already designated to improve Cascadilla and Fall Creek gorges.

Work above College Avenue in the Cascadilla Gorge below Hoy Road is underway, including work on a retaining wall and stairs by Eddy Dam, a footbridge by the Faculty Tennis Club and a staircase by Rhodes Hall. Railings and overhead lighting from the Trolley Bridge to the footbridge will be installed this summer. More than 2,200 feet of trails have been improved, using gravel that routinely builds up near the university’s water intake system to save on the cost of materials and promote overall sustainability.

Work on the Fall Creek area, begun in May 2012, is near completion: All trail improvements were completed last November and four “destination points” along the creek or on the gorge rim have been approved for development.

Also part of the university’s gorge safety initiative: Two full- and one part-time gorge steward have been hired for the summer to educate visitors about safety, gorge regulations and gorge swimming alternatives. During July-September 2012, stewards logged in 770 hours, observing 11,200 people in the Fall Creek, Cascadilla Creek and Beebe Lake natural areas, interacted with 1,610 visitors and issued 1,049 oral warnings on gorge regulations and safety.

The stewards – all Cornell students who have trained with the Cornell Plantations staff in the natural and cultural history of the area – are leading guided hikes Thursdays and Saturdays during the summer. “They are the most direct way we have to interact with our users and promote safety,” said Bittner.

This year, the university will again promote safe alternatives to gorge swimming by running free buses out to Treman Park on the busy weekends of first-year orientation: Aug. 24-25 and Aug. 31-Sept. 2. Hiking maps for natural areas on Cornell's campus are available at cornellplantations.org/trails